Op-Ed: Opting Out to Help Save Public Education for NJ’s Students and Teachers

Darcie Cimarusti | February 24, 2015 | Opinion
How many standardized state tests did Gov. Christie take as public-school student? Exactly none.

Darcie Cimarusti
In a February 19 op-ed, Millburn Superintendent James Crisfield offers criticism of parents exerting what they consider to be their “right” to refuse the upcoming PARCC tests for their children.

The “slippery slope” argument Crisfield employs, where he hypothesizes that allowing parents to refuse PARCC will ultimately “destroy public education as we know it today,” is misdirected. Crisfield is laying the blame for the current state of public education on the wrong doorstep.

To be sure, what we are seeing in New Jersey is tantamount to a parent revolution. But it is not occurring in isolation, and it is certainly not destroying public education. If anything, it may be saving it.

It is estimated that over 60,000 students in neighboring New York opted out of the test last year. In fact, New York City teacher Jia Lee testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee at a hearing on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that over 50 percent of the parents in her school opted their children out of the Common-Core-aligned New York State test last year.

At a subsequent HELP Committee hearing on NCLB reauthorization, witnesses were asked by what percentage testing could be reduced while still holding districts and states accountable for student achievement. The almost unanimous answer — from the state superintendent of Kentucky, a district superintendent from Texas, a principal from Maryland, and a first-grade teacher from Washington State – was that testing could be reduced by at least 50 percent to 60 percent.

Despite this agreement among education professionals at all levels, it is doubtful that Congress will act to remove the federal mandate for annual testing that descended on the nation with their passage of NCLB in 2001.

Crisfield’s argument, that parents are overreacting because there has always been testing, is not a new one, but it is simply not based in fact. New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe has posited this as well, and Gov. Chris Christie made similar remarks stating, “We all took tests, we all went through standardized tests, here we are, we’re alive, we’re breathing, we’re OK.”

The trouble is, like me, many parents know that testing was never like this.

The NJDOE has compiled a fascinating timeline of the state’s assessment program, and how it has grown and changed since the late 1970’s. It is an informative read if you are interested in comparing the amount of testing our children will be subjected to under PARCC to what many of us experienced as students (if you’re a New Jersey native).

I’m a Jersey girl, and I graduated from Hopewell Valley Central High School in 1986. According to the NJDOE’s timeline the Minimum Basic Skills (MBS) test was New Jersey’s first standardized test. It was implemented in 1978 as a grade-span test for students in grades three, six, and nine. I was already in fourth grade by then, so I never took the third-grade test, but I would have taken it in sixth. By 1983, my ninth-grade year, the state replaced the MBS test in ninth grade with the Grade 9 High School Proficiency Test (HSPT9). The HSPT9 was the first standardized test to count as a graduation requirement in New Jersey, and my class was the first to have to meet this requirement. All this to say, in my 13 years of public schooling I only took two standardized tests.

If the current state assessment schedule is maintained, my daughters will be tested every year in grades three to 11, and they will have to take both the performance-based and end-of-year administrations of the PARCC, in both language arts and math. This is a total of 18 standardized tests. They will also have to take the NJASK science test in fourth and eighth grades, and the New Jersey Biology Competency Test in ninth, which adds another three tests, for a total of 21 separate administrations of standardized testing from grades three to 11.

And how about Christie? How many tests did he take? After all, he claims “we all took tests” and we’re OK, and he offers this as evidence that parents are overreacting by refusing. The governor graduated from Livingston High School in 1980. According to the NJDOE’s own timeline, despite his claims to the contrary, Governor Christie never took a standardized test.

Not. One.

He would have been in 10th grade in 1978 when the MBS test was implemented for grades three, six, and nine, and he was well out of high school by 1986 when my graduating class was the first to have to pass a standardized test to graduate.

Christie managed to become governor without filling in even a single bubble with a No. 2 pencil, and his children, who attend private schools, will not be subjected to the 21 standardized tests mandated for my daughters.

So despite Crisfield, Hespe and Christie’s claims, while it may be true that New Jersey has had tests “for decades,” the impact on children today is far, far greater. Parents shouldn’t have to pull their children out of public schools to avoid overtesting — educational leaders and policymakers need to acknowledge the refusal movement is a symptom, not the cause, of broken education policy.

A closer look at the NJDOE’s history of assessments also reveals that the impetus for the tests has shifted over the years. The grade-span tests introduced in the 70s were driven and developed by the state, whereas the bulk of the annual testing children are subjected to today is a response to federal mandates and demands for accountability in exchange for federal funds.

Last week the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the “Student Success Act,” the House version of NCLB reauthorization legislation, and the full House is expected to vote on it next week. The bill, as currently drafted, enshrines the federal mandate for annual testing for another five years.

This despite the fact that the Senate heard testimony from a state chief on down to a classroom teacher that there is too much testing in our nation’s classrooms. When our representatives in Washington, D.C., refuse to act on the recommendations of educators to reduce testing, what other choice do parents have but to refuse?

Recently the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) released a FAQ document to offer guidance to boards on how to handle test refusals. The NJSBA quoted a New Jersey statute that students shall “submit to the authority of the teachers and others in authority over them.”

Are parents honestly expected to sit back while the democratic institution of public education is reduced to the demand that students shall submit to those in authority over them?

Parents and teachers across New Jersey, and across the nation, are coming together to reclaim the promise of public education. They want a public education system based not on standardization and compliance, but rather on exploration and discovery. It is federal legislators who have set us on a course to “destroy public education as we know it today,” and it is parents and teachers who are attempting to restore balance and educational integrity to our schools.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight